Dealing with panic attacks

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By Rosie Drew

Panic attacks, also known as anxiety attacks, are sudden feelings of fear and unease. They can be very terrifying and can happen unexpectedly to anyone at any time.

Physical symptoms include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dizziness and shaking. They arise because your body goes into ‘fight or flight mode’. This is the body’s natural reaction to danger or fear. The hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released which makes you feel more alert.

People may feel out of control when a panic attack strikes but learning hope to cope with your emotions and physical symptoms can help you take control of the situation.

Breathing

When having a panic attack, focus on your breathing. Shortness of breath and deep, rapid breathing are common. This is known as hyperventilation and in most cases your breathing will soon return back to normal – so try to reel it in, as over-stressing will only make your breathing more difficult.

Take long deep breaths through your nose, pausing for around three seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat this technique until you begin to feel relaxed and the feelings of anxiety and panic have started to decrease.

Another technique is breathing into your abdomen. Do this by placing one hand on your chest and the other on your lower stomach. Breathing in and out through your nose, making sure the hand on your stomach is rising and falling and the hand on your chest remains still. Staying still, or concentrating on a particular spot when doing this exercise, also helps.

Relaxation

Relaxation is also key when you are having an anxiety attack. Your initial reaction may be to panic but this can make things worse. The calmer you are, the quicker the attack will go.

Reassure yourself, in your head or aloud, that you are not in any serious trouble. Repeating reassuring phrases like this will help you to realise that there is nothing to worry about.

If you find it hard to calm down, asking a friend to speak calmly to you about a random subject can also help to keep your mind off what is happening.

Turn the focus elsewhere. Close your eyes and think about positive life experiences, perhaps a nice day out, or a special moment. Try counting backwards from 100 or preparing a shopping list. These small things can divert your attention and help you return to your normal state quicker.

Relaxation techniques are helpful as they divert your concentration from the fear that you are currently experiencing. They are also physically good to calm your body down.

Lie down or sit comfortably. Start from the top of your body and work your way down, relaxing your muscles as you get lower. One by one, tense each group of muscles in your body for around 10 seconds then release. Repeat this for all muscle groups, including the face, hands, arms, stomach, buttocks, legs and feet.

Distraction

During stressful moments, it is helpful to try to take your mind off the situation. Playing with a toy that engages all your senses is one way to distract you. This could be any object; stress balls are especially effective for some people.

Listening to relaxing and calming music is also a soothing. Lie on your back or sit comfortably and shut your eyes. Play some soothing music through headphones or out loud.

If you are alone when a panic attack strikes, this can often feel very daunting. Use your phone to call a reassuring person who can keep you calm and take your mind off the situation. If you are with another person when your anxiety hits, have a calm off-topic conversation with that person.

When you are experiencing a panic attack, it might seem like a good idea to move away from where you are. This can cause you more stress. Anxiety attacks are very common so there is no need to be embarrassed if it happens in public.

Staying where you are is also a good psychological way of fighting your fears. If you experience panic attacks every time you get on the train, do not get off, as your brain will begin to cause a link between fear and the train. Staying where you are will help you to realise that it is not the train is not the culprit.

Learn the AWARE technique so that you are prepared for your panic attack.

A: Accept that you are having a panic attack.
W: Watch the anxiety. Take a note of how your body reacts during an attack – everybody reacts differently. Knowing exactly what is happening to your body makes you more in control
A: Act normal. This is easier said than done, but the more you panic the more worked up you will be. So, try and be calm so that the attack passes quickly.
R: Repeat/Relax. Repeat the AWA steps. Also, try some of the above relaxation techniques.
E: Expect the best out of the situation. Having a positive attitude will help, take notice of any gains.

By practising this technique, you can become more in control of your anxiety. Go over this regularly so you are prepared. Writing it down is a good idea and make sure you keep it on you in case.

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